Black Men, White Women And The Hollywood Shuffle

On-screen, interracial relationships between white women and African American, Latino, or Asian men occur so infrequently that it can be argued that there is an implicit censorship of these unions that demonstrates how certain subjects are rendered outside the realm of what is speakable. Even films that do pair a white woman with a man of color tend to keep the relationship platonic or avoid showing any intimacy in their relationship. For example, interracial weddings are rarely seen or celebrated on-screen, even though weddings are a particularly popular tool used in Hollywood films to end a movie or serve as a backdrop of the narrative. Since weddings legitimize and solidify relationships, the avoidance of legitimizing interracial unions through marriage can be read as a symbolic ban, like the legal ban on interracial marriage overturned in 1967 by the Supreme Court.

Prominent black actors such as Cuba Gooding, Jr., Will Smith, and Denzel Washington have commented on Hollywood’s tendency to avoid the issue of interracial intimacy and the hesitancy of white executives to place a black male lead opposite a white female lead for a romantic story line. When Denzel Washington was asked how people would react to a black man and white woman in bed on-screen, he replied “I don’t know. . . . I wouldn’t do it just for the reaction. If it’s a good story, I’d do it. . . . I haven’t turned down any scenes like that because I haven’t been offered any. So again that’s a question for some guys [waves his arm toward the Hollywood Hills] behind those big gates.” While black male actors are often blamed or rumored to avoid love scenes with a white woman, Denzel Washington, as well as Will Smith and Cuba Gooding, have all acknowledged that it is the filmmakers who make these choices.

In Hollywood today, a black man kissing a white woman is still largely a taboo as far as studio executives are concerned, as evidenced in the large number of movies that pair a black man opposite a white woman that do not include a romantic relationship. Films based on books that contained an interracial relationship, such as The Pelican Brief and Kiss the Girls, altered the story lines from the books they were based on to eliminate any sexual tension or relationship between the white and black lead actors.

In The Bone Collector, Washington played opposite Angelina Jolie, where they did exchange sexual innuendos, yet there was no danger of the two actually having sex since Washington’s character was a quadriplegic who couldn’t leave the house. The Oscar-nominated and popular box-office black actor Will Smith has also been paired against white women in movies such as Men in Black and I, Robot, yet the closest it came to a romantic or sexual encounter in either film was suggestive comments. This phenomenon occurs in a string of films such as Murder at 1600 (1997) with Wesley Snipes and Diane Lane and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) with Samuel Jackson and Geena Davis.

As some have argued, Middle-class American family norms include a guarantee against miscegenation and interracial sex is most problematic if it involves a white woman, given the gendered way that white women paired with men of color are often rendered outside the realm of possibility while white men paired with any woman is a possibility.

For example, in the popular 2005 romantic comedy Hitch, Will Smith plays a “love doctor” who helps other men get women to fall in love with them, focusing on his work with an awkward white guy in love with a beautiful blonde. While able to help other men by teaching them his moves, Will Smith clumsily pursues a character played by Cuban American actress Eva Mendes. As Hitch director Andy Tennant argues, “Unfortunately, if you paired Will with a white woman, that would overpower the romantic comedy. It would suddenly become an interracial love story, and that wasn’t the movie we were making.” Will Smith also commented on the racial politics of casting in an interview with a British paper, the Birmingham Post while promoting Hitch overseas:

“There’s sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don’t want to see it. . . . We spend $50-something million making this movie and the studio would think that was tough on their investment. So the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up—that’ll work around the world, but it’s a problem in the U.S.”

Therefore, racial policing of on-screen relationships can be tricky business, especially when a black male actor is featured, and the fear of the white producers is that pairing him with a white woman will “overtake” the movie or more likely alienate some, yet pairing him with a black woman would change the film into a “black film.” Rather than acknowledge racism, white directors like Tennant problematize interracial unions and excuse the avoidance of these unions as good storytelling.

Relationships between men of color and white women are rarely depicted as long-term or successful and are often submerged in deviance. Furthermore, interracial sex is used to symbolize a major transformation or turn in the lives of young white women on-screen. This is reminiscent of the way white womanhood was viewed as a potential source of crisis after the Civil War. A number of contemporary movies such as Bad Company, Cruel Intentions, Freeway, Pulp Fiction, and Ricochet include an interracial sexual encounter or relationship, yet it is submersed in a deviant world of crime, prostitution, and inner-city motels.

Too often, interracial relationships symbolize chaos, unevenness, the unknown, fitting right into a postmodern or postpostmodern disarray of lives. Beyond what representations we see, it is more about what we don’t see. Interracial weddings are rarely seen or celebrated on-screen, even though they are particularly popular tools used in Hollywood films to end a movie or serve as a backdrop of the narrative. Since weddings legitimize and solidify relationships, the avoidance of legitimizing interracial unions through marriage can be read as a symbolic ban, like the legal ban on interracial marriage overturned in 1967 by the Supreme Court. There are virtually no films that include a happily partnered white woman and black man within the context of a stable, middle-class world. If a white woman is paired interracially, most often it occurs in a deviant setting, it causes problems, and/or is met with opposition, usually from communities of color who are used to symbolically represent the potential problems.

Protecting white women even in the movies remains a prerogative of the predominantly white male producers who control the film images we see. While the earliest films showed the dangers of interracial sex, with a white woman jumping off a cliff rather than be defiled by a black man, today’s white women who engage in sexual relations with a black man on-screen are also damaged, yet now it is symbolized through drugs, prostitution, and disengagement with school or family.

The representations of interracial unions between black men and white women do little to challenge racial boundaries, and often it is safer to pair a black man with a Latina woman, who is almost, yet not quite, white. Black men can be sexual predators, but they cannot be charismatic sexual partners, especially to white women, as we see in how few romantic movies a prominent star like Denzel Washington has been in. In Hitch, the problem of who to cast opposite Will Smith and the solution of pairing him opposite Eva Mendes shows what filmmakers think will alienate viewers and allows the familiar story to be told of a black man who is sexually savvy and slick teaching a white man how to get a girl without the threat of Will Smith wanting a white woman too (thereby also not posing a threat to the white man who he instead is helping). What emerges is that not only is interracial sexuality involving whites, particularly white women, problematized, it also points to how interracial couplings involving white women and black men, whether fictional or not, are still viewed with distaste in contemporary American society.

13 Responses to “Black Men, White Women And The Hollywood Shuffle”

  1. 1 tnameat
    February 3, 2010 at 12:44 am

    This is an article worthy of a magazine! Can I please link people to this on White Goddess?

  2. 3 GuruOfReason
    February 15, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Steven Barnes, an African American science fiction writer, rips into the Book of Eli and other similar movies: http://darkush.blogspot.com/2010/02/book-of-eli-2010.html

  3. April 26, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Boy, this just shows how taboo black male and white female pairings are. It just won’t die, despite how far we’ve gotten in racial relations. I highly doubt the president would’ve gotten elected if his wife was white. No other racial pairing is more polarizing than black men with white females. Even Hollywood shows that.

  4. 5 V.E.G.
    May 6, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    There are black men married to white woman have been around for a long time. For example, Emmanuel Driggers, a black man married to a white woman, while Edward Mozingo, a black man married to a white woman.

  5. 6 CowboyJohn-Brad
    May 6, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    I’m planning to write a book about a black 70’s and early 80’s rock star whose career was derailed because of his buxom blonde girlfriend’s father’s racism9he was the president of the star’s rival record company in Tulsa,and a State Senator long noted for his bigotry;he spread rumours that the rocker dude was drugging his[almost always buxom blonde]girlfriends,a charge which,though laughed out of court when it was adjudicated,was believed by enough of his fans-and
    enemies-that his subsequent releases failed to sell)I’m hoping to pitch to completed tome to Hollywood Producers,one of whom hopefully will be interested enough to turn it into a screen play,with Yours Truly as the lead.Do you think I can pull off my propsal,fellow posters?

  6. 7 sumptinew
    May 15, 2010 at 10:10 am

    Great stuff. Check us out on the “Weddington Adventures” where we showcase our interracial adventures in the windy city of Chicago. Feel free to share. Be easy:)

  7. 8 DeadInkPen
    September 16, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    The only thing more taboo is showing a white man with a black woman

  8. 9 Black Cowboy Stud Brett 1953
    September 17, 2010 at 8:21 am

    Of course,I believe A LOT of today’s Hollywood starlets are closet racists,despite their allegedly “liberal” political preachments.The number of white leading ladies with black boyfriends/husbands is minimal,and of course,racist tripe such as “The Blind Side,”2009’s “It
    flick,”about a seemingly-challenged African-American youth who’s taken in by a white “progressive” Southern couple(Country star Tim McGraw and Sandra Bullock as the leads;St. Louis Rams DT Michael Oher portrayed the young giant paternalistically sheltered by McGraw and Bull-
    ock)though he nevertheless is warned about the jeopardy he’d face by dating a white girl.Of course,nothing resembling a relationship between the budding gridiron hero and ANY female is even
    suggested,it’s as if the young man is a eunuch in his keepers’ thrall.And to think that in ’69,
    Jim Brown and Raquel Welch had the first big-screen inter-racial love scene in “One Hundred
    Rifles,”yet the boyishly-built Ms. Bullock can’t deign to have a black bed partner???The U.S.A.
    in toto has progressed a great deal racially in the past two generations,but Hollywood seems
    “Back To The Future” in depicting black studs and white babes.

  9. 11 V.E.G.
    October 20, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Yaphet Kotto married to white women and an Asian. Kotto is a black man of Jewish descent.

  10. 12 stolidcharisma
    October 30, 2010 at 12:53 am


    Hope your article gets published in a magazine. None white one too..

    I damn near didn’t read any of this, but I know what is written and I co-sign!

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